On July 12, 2019, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill amending the definition of “race” in the New York State Human Rights Law to include “traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.” As a result, discrimination based on hair texture and protective hairstyles and other traits historically associated with race is now illegal in New York State. Hair texture includes naturally occurring traits, such as curly or kinky hair. Protective hairstyles are generally considered those where a person’s hair is shaped and not left out loose. While the new law specifically identifies braids, locks and twists as examples of protective hairstyles, all types of hairstyles historically associated with a person’s race are protected from discrimination. Moreover, the new law protects not only hairstyles, but all other traits that are historically associated with race, whatever they might be. Thus, employers in New York State will now potentially be subject to race discrimination claims based on a variety of personal traits, not just hairstyle.
Accordingly, employers should revise their equal employment opportunity statements and discrimination and harassment policies to prohibit discrimination based on traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles. They should also train managers and supervisors, along with those involved in the interviewing and hiring process, about the new law to avoid discrimination based on any protected trait. While employers may still enforce grooming and appearance standards, in light of the new law, extreme care should be taken when applying them to an applicant’s or employee’s hairstyle, or in other situations that might involve a trait historically associated with a person’s race.